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Babies help unlock the origins of morality

 Watch the Segment »

Can infants tell right from wrong? And if so, how would you know? Come to Yale's baby lab. Lesley Stahl reports.

The following script is from "The Baby Lab" which aired on Nov. 18, 2012. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Shari Finkelstein, producer.

It's a question people have asked for as long as there have been people: are human beings inherently good? Are we born with a sense of morality or do we arrive blank slates, waiting for the world to teach us right from wrong? Or could it be worse: do we start out nasty, selfish devils, who need our parents, teachers, and religions to whip us into shape?

The only way to know for sure, of course, is to ask a baby. But until recently, it's been hard to persuade them to open up and share their secrets. Enter the baby lab.

This is the creature at the center of the greatest philosophical, moral, and religious debates about the nature of man: the human baby. They don't do much, can't talk, can't write, can't expound at length about their moral philosophies. But does that mean they don't have one? The philosopher Rousseau considered babies "perfect idiots...Knowing nothing," and Yale psychologist Karen Wynn, director of the Infant Cognition Center here, the baby lab, says for most of its history, her field agreed.

Lesley Stahl: Didn't we just think that these creatures at three months and even six months were basically just little blobs?

Karen Wynn: Oh, sure. I mean, if you look at them, they--

Lesley Stahl: Yeah.

Karen Wynn: They kinda look like little, I mean, cute little blobs. But they can't do all the things that an older child can. They can't even do the things that a dog or a pigeon or a rat can.

No pulling levers for treats or running mazes for these study subjects. But they can watch puppet shows. And Wynn is part of a new wave of researchers who have discovered seemingly simple ways to probe what's really going on in those adorable little heads. We watched as Wynn and her team asked a question that 20 years ago might have gotten her laughed out of her field. Does Wesley here, at the ripe old age of 5 months, know the difference between right and wrong?

Wesley watches as the puppet in the center struggles to open up a box with a toy inside. The puppy in the yellow shirt comes over and lends a hand. Then the scene repeats itself, but this time the puppy in the blue shirt comes and slams the box shut. Nice behavior...mean behavior...at least to our eyes. But is that how a 5-month-old sees it, and does he have a preference?

Annie: Wesley, do you remember these guys from the show?

To find out, a researcher who doesn't know which puppet was nice and which was mean, offers Wesley a choice.

Annie: Who do you like?

He can't answer, but he can reach... (reaches for nice puppet)

Annie: That one?

Wesley chose the good guy and he wasn't alone.

More than three fourths of the babies tested reached for the nice puppet. Wynn tried it out on even younger babies, 3 month olds, who can't control their arms enough to reach. But they can vote with their eyes, since research has shown that even very young babies look longer at things they like. Daisy here looked at the mean puppet for 5 seconds; then switched to the nice one for 33.

Karen Wynn: Babies, even at three months, looked towards the nice character and looked hardly at all, much, much, much shorter times, towards the unhelpful character.

Lesley Stahl: So basically as young as three months old, we human beings show a preference for nice people over mean people.

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http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-57551557/babies-help-unlock-t...

It was a good 60 minutes segment

Views: 735

Replies to This Discussion

One Cool Kid
Submitted by: Unknown

I think both, greed to secure what is needed for your comfort, empathy when you have excess after fullfilling your needs.

ARE BABIES BORN GOOD?

From Smithsonian:

Born-to-Be-Mild-angel-devil-631Arber Tasimi is a 23-year-old researcher at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center, where he studies the moral inclinations of babies—how the littlest children understand right and wrong, before language and culture exert their deep influence.“What are we at our core, before anything, before everything?” he asks. His experiments draw on the work of Jean Piaget, Noam Chomsky, his own undergraduate thesis at the University of Pennsylvania and what happened to him in New Haven, Connecticut, one Friday night last February. It was about 9:45 p.m., and Tasimi and a friend were strolling home from dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings. Just a few hundred feet from his apartment building, he passed a group of young men in jeans and hoodies. Tasimi barely noticed them, until one landed a punch to the back of his head. There was no time to run. The teenagers, ignoring his friend, wordlessly surrounded Tasimi, who had crumpled to the brick sidewalk. “It was seven guys versus one aspiring PhD,” he remembers. “I started counting punches, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Somewhere along the way, a knife came out.” The blade slashed through his winter coat, just missing his skin. At last the attackers ran, leaving Tasimi prone and weeping on the sidewalk, his left arm broken. Police later said he was likely the random victim of a gang initiation. After surgeons inserted a metal rod in his arm, Tasimi moved back home with his parents in Waterbury, Conn­­ecticut, about 35 minutes from New Haven, and became a creature much like the babies whose social lives he studies. He couldn’t shower on his own. His mom washed him and tied his shoes. His sister cut his meat.

Spring came. One beautiful afternoon, the temperature soared into the 70s and Tasimi, whose purple and yellow bruises were still healing, worked up the courage to stroll outside by himself for the first time. He went for a walk on a nearby jogging trail. He tried not to notice the two teenagers who seemed to be following him. “Stop ca­tastrophizing,” he told himself again and again, up until the moment the boys demanded his headphones. The mugging wasn’t violent but it broke his spirit. Now the whole world seemed menacing. When he at last resumed his morality studies at the Infant Cognition Center, he parked his car on the street, feeding the meter every few hours rather than risking a shadowy parking garage. “I’ve never been this low in life,” he told me when we first met at the baby lab a few weeks after the second crime.

“You can’t help wonder: Are we a failed species?”

More here.

Posted by Azra Raza at 05:13 AM | Permalink

Then why do the people with the least to give,give the most to help people out, while the ones with the most to give,give the least?

Great point, and there was actually a study of empathy among the rich, showing they have less empathy than poorer people. I have to dig it out. 

I think zrdm's comment applies only to the worst desperate situations such as a refugee camp or natural disaster area where people are starving, they may fight one another over food or water. I know if I was in that situation and I had little kids, I would fight other people for resources to save my children. But barring cases like that, what Davy brings up is true. 

Were I been forced into a situation such as you describe Adriana I too would do the same thing for my kids as well. But what causes situations other than natural disaster to occur? 

The short answer is: greed

BBC Column: Are we naturally good or bad?

My BBC Future column from last week. The original is here. I started out trying to write about research using economic games with apes and monkeys but I got so bogged down in the literature I switched to this neat experiment instead. Ed Yong is a better man than me and wrote a brilliant piece about that research, which you can find here.

It’s a question humanity has repeatedly asked itself, and one way to find out is to take a closer look at the behaviour of babies.… and use puppets.

Fundamentally speaking, are humans good or bad? It’s a question that has repeatedly been asked throughout humanity. For thousands of years, philosophers have debated whether we have a basically good nature that is corrupted by society, or a basically bad nature that is kept in check by society. Psychology has uncovered some evidence which might give the old debate a twist.

One way of asking about our most fundamental characteristics is to look at babies. Babies’ minds are a wonderful showcase for human nature. Babies are humans with the absolute minimum of cultural influence – they don’t have many friends, have never been to school and haven’t read any books. They can’t even control their own bowels, let alone speak the language, so their minds are as close to innocent as a human mind can get.

The only problem is that the lack of language makes it tricky to gauge their opinions. Normally we ask people to take part in experiments, giving them instructions or asking them to answer questions, both of which require language. Babies may be cuter to work with, but they are not known for their obedience. What’s a curious psychologist to do?

Fortunately, you don’t necessarily have to speak to reveal your opinions. Babies will reach for things they want or like, and they will tend to look longer at things that surprise them. Ingenious experiments carried out at Yale University in the US used these measures to look at babies’ minds. Their results suggest that even the youngest humans have a sense of right and wrong, and, furthermore, an instinct to prefer good over evil.

How could the experiments tell this? Imagine you are a baby. Since you have a short attention span, the experiment will be shorter and loads more fun than most psychology experiments. It was basically a kind of puppet show; the stage a scene featuring a bright green hill, and the puppets were cut-out shapes with stick on wobbly eyes; a triangle, a square and a circle, each in their own bright colours. What happened next was a short play, as one of the shapes tried to climb the hill, struggling up and falling back down again. Next, the other two shapes got involved, with either one helping the climber up the hill, by pushing up from behind, or the other hindering the climber, by pushing back from above.

Already something amazing, psychologically, is going on here. All humans are able to interpret the events in the play in terms of the story I’ve described. The puppets are just shapes. They don’t make human sounds or display human emotions. They just move about, and yet everyone reads these movements as purposeful, and revealing of their characters. You can argue that this “mind reading”, even in infants, shows that it is part of our human nature to believe in other minds.

Great expectations

What happened next tells us even more about human nature. After the show, infants were given the choice of reaching for either the helping or the hindering shape, and it turned out they were much more likely to reach for the helper. This can be explained if they are reading the events of the show in terms of motivations – the shapes aren’t just moving at random, but they showed to the infant that the shape pushing uphill “wants” to help out (and so is nice) and the shape pushing downhill “wants” to cause problems (and so is nasty).

The researchers used an encore to confirm these results. Infants saw a second scene in which the climber shape made a choice to move towards either the helper shape or the hinderer shape. The time infants spent looking in each of the two cases revealed what they thought of the outcome. If the climber moved towards the hinderer the infants looked significantly longer than if the climber moved towards the helper. This makes sense if the infants were surprised when the climber approached the hinderer. Moving towards the helper shape would be the happy ending, and obviously it was what the infant expected. If the climber moved towards the hinderer it was a surprise, as much as you or I would be surprised if we saw someone give a hug to a man who had just knocked him over.

The way to make sense of this result is if infants, with their pre-cultural brains had expectations about how people should act. Not only do they interpret the movement of the shapes as resulting from motivations, but they prefer helping motivations over hindering ones.

This doesn’t settle the debate over human nature. A cynic would say that it just shows that infants are self-interested and expect others to be the same way. At a minimum though, it shows that tightly bound into the nature of our developing minds is the ability to make sense of the world in terms of motivations, and a basic instinct to prefer friendly intentions over malicious ones. It is on this foundation that adult morality is built.

This was a pretty good summary of the data on babies.

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